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How Weather-Related Closures Are Decided

posted Jan 23, 2012, 11:18 AM by Elaine Smith   [ updated Jan 23, 2012, 3:53 PM ]
Well, Old Man Winter has reminded us that he is still alive and well. I hope that everyone has power back on and that you have survived this storm intact. Parents often have questions about how and when we make our decisions about cancelling or delaying the start of school due to inclement weather. Following is the general protocol we follow, and the rationale for some decisions.

~ Timing is important! Our Director of Transportation, Damian Jenkins, personally drives the main bus routes between 3:00 and 4:30 a.m. on days where snow has fallen or is predicted. She and I talk by phone to discuss current conditions and the forecast; our goal is to make a decision no later than 5:00 a.m. in order to have time to communicate with staff and families and to ensure that none of our early morning employees such as cooks, custodians, maintenance and of course our bus drivers do not head out into dangerous conditions. We also have staff driving into the district from other communities as well and I am equally concerned about their safety.

School closure information is posted immediately to our website, sent to local television stations, and calls generated by our auto-dialer school messenger phone system. Our goal is to get that message out early as many families have at least one member of the family that leaves early for work especially when the weather is bad.

We try to avoid ‘changing the call’ (e.g., from a late start to school closure) if at all possible. Families sometimes stop checking for information after the first call or television announcement. However, we don't have a crystal ball, and conditions are sometimes better (dry roads and not a flake to be seen) or worse (snowing like crazy) by the time school starts. Sometimes we even have a cold front come in once the buses are already running and we have freezing rain to contend with.

~ Two Hours Late. This is a frequent call on snowy or icy mornings. It ensures that we don't have students out at bus stops, or walking or driving to school in the dark, with cars slipping around on icy streets. With a two-hour late start, the morning traffic rush is usually past, and the roads improve when the sun comes up; this increases student safety. With a late start, our students will still get breakfast and lunch; many families rely on these meals for their children. When there is a late start, the school day does not have to be made up.

~ No School. This decision is made when the current conditions (5:00 a.m.) and the available forecast combine to indicate that things won't improve enough with a late start. It’s important to remember that while individual cars might be able to get around, this doesn't mean that school busses full of children can, or that teenage drivers should be on the road. When school is closed, the day must be made up later in the year. As you are aware, I try to make the call as early as possible the evening before if it is fairly clear that the circumstances dictate in an effort to be sensitive to the needs of parents who need to make daycare arrangements. That is not always possible, but I do try.

It is also important to note that we are an unusual district in that we have communities that span both the steeps hills and the flat valleys. You may live in Fife and look out your window at very little snow or ice, while the road conditions up in Milton, Fife Heights or Trout Lake are dangerous. We cannot run the district in segments and therefore I will always err on the side of safety.

~ Closing School after it Starts. This is our ‘worst case’ scenario. We really try to avoid a situation where we bring students in to school, and then have to send them back home. In many families, parents are already at work, and it can be difficult to communicate with them to ensure students have a safe place to go. As you may recall that happened once last year when an unexpected snow front moved in at about 11:00. While our staff did a great job in dealing with it, we try to avoid it at all costs. In fact, this past Tuesday, January 17 was a good example and why all districts in the area cancelled and then in hindsight it seemed like a bad call. I would make that same call every time. We were already two hours late and the forecast was 90% for significant snow at 11:00 and then again at 1:00. One can only imagine the fiasco that would entail had we made the call to go two hours late to simply transport kids through snow to maybe eat lunch and then call school two hours early and transport them through the same bad conditions to get them home safely if we even can get a parent there to meet them.
This is an area where parents can help by having a Snow Day Plan--a consistent decision about what their children should do if the schools close early.

I hope this letter helps you understand our thinking in making these decisions; the safety and well-being of our students and staff are always our first priority. I always say to staff that snow calls are a “no win” decision as we live in a hill and valley area and that it is “how well I communicate my bad decision” that matters as someone will always be unhappy. At the end of the day, again, we want everyone safe and sound and I would err on making up the day in the relative sunshine of June. A few years back, we negotiated with our teachers union to decrease the length of mid-winter break, (where we used to build in a few snow make up days) and so the make-up days will be added to the end of the calendar and that updated calendar is now posted to the district web site. Of course, we may not be done with winter yet and that is all subject to change. We appreciate your understanding and support.

Dr. Steve McCammon

Superintendent of Fife Public Schools